Don McCullin at Hauser & Wirth

DON McCullin, one of the all-time great war photographers and more recently a documenter of rural landscapes, has an important exhibition at Hauser & Wirth, Bruton, running to 4th May.

Don McCullin. The Stillness of Life features more than 60 landscape photographs, mapping his intimate relationship with the local landscape of Somerset and continued passion for global travel since the 60s, with scenes from the UK, Europe and Asia, revealing some of his innermost feelings through powerful compositions of wild heavens, haunting vistas and meditative still lifes.

McCullin, who lives near Bruton, has spent six decades travelling to remote locations and witnessing harrowing scenes of conflict and destruction. He often describes the British countryside as his salvation. In this exhibition, McCullin demonstrates the full mastery of his medium with stark black and white images resonating with human emotion.

Having been evacuated to the safety of Somerset during the Blitz, he has had a lifelong connection with the open farmland and hill country of the South West, feeling at peace within the solitude of the expansive landscape.

The largest group of photographs explores areas within walking distance of the photographer’s home, including The River Alham near my house, Somerset’(2007), The Dew Pond, Somerset (1988) and Batcombe Vale (1992-93).

There is a series of gelatin still life compositions, composed in McCullin’s garden shed and developed in his dark room at home. He often refers to these still lifes as providing a deeper form of escapism than his landscapes, drawing inspiration from the great Flemish and Dutch renaissance masters.

Rural scenes including Hadrian’s Wall, the River Cam in Cambridgeshire; Rannoch Moor and Glencoe are presented in contrast with urban landscapes from McCullin’s early career and visits to Northern England in the 1960s and 70s. His honest and empathetic approach to poverty, social concerns and hardship in Britain is most apparent in these photographs, highlighting a genuine commitment to communities often overlooked and the landscape in which they inhabit.

Work from the recent Southern Frontiers project provides an important connection between the two key strands of McCullin’s work: conflict and landscape. Beginning in the early 2000s, he began documenting physical remains of the colossal Roman Empire in North African and Levantine landscapes, including the ancient site of Palmyra. McCullin travelled through Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya, returning to Syria recently to document the decimation of these ancient sites by the so-called Islamic State. This driving force to connect and reflect on sacred locations and diverse communities continues further afield across to India and Indonesia, locations where McCullin has documented local rituals, festivals and architecture.

The exhibition concludes with four previously unseen Arctic landscapes captured by McCullin in 2019 during a trip to Svalbard. The journey was the culmination of a lifelong ambition to immerse himself in this ever-changing hostile environment. As with most of his landscapes, this evocative series presents us simultaneously with overwhelming beauty and reminds us of the fragility of our natural environment.

Returning to the theme of Somerset, he says: “My solace lies in recording what remains of the beautiful landscape of Somerset and its metallic dark skies, which give this county an aged and sometimes remote feeling as if the past is struggling against the future. The stillness of silence and sometimes my loneliness provoke my imagination, but, like the surrounding land, I am fighting to release the past in me.”

Pictured: Batcombe Vale, 1992-93; The valley of the tombs, which ISIS has destroyed ; Young boys playing on the slag-heaps at Consett 1982; The river that runs through my village in Someret 1998.